Where We Find Ourselves
Informal institutions build shared experience best. Left to right, Dave Cuthbert, Bill Park, and Shane Kinney take a quick photo break
By Tom Grinnell
“Hey Tom! You coming to play?” I heard
someone calling out. I was walking toward
the Box—the Kew Gardens ice rink and a
Beach shinny hockey institution.
“Not today,” I replied.
As I got closer, the guys noticed my camera. One grizzled hockey vet in a Leafs sweater asked suspiciously, “You scouting for the Leafs?”
His buddies erupted in a chorus of laughter. They skated away and returned to their game.
I always loved playing hockey down at the Box. The feeling of that cold, damp winter wind nipping at my nose and the sound of my skates carving up the ice hardened by our Canadian winter made me feel like a true hockey player. I always wore number 66 for my hockey idol, Mario Lemieux. Sometimes I thought I was making plays that looked like ones made by Mario. But there was always a Bobby Orr, or Wendel Clark at the other end of the ice to stop me.
The game wasn’t perfect, in fact far from it. But it was beautiful. Come to think of it, most of the games I played down at the Box were quite sloppy and haphazard. Sometimes there would be two games happening at the same time, or sometimes the ice would be covered in a layer of the snow that fell as we played, causing the puck not to move.
But we still played. All in mismatched jerseys and jackets, and in skates and sticks of all different ages and conditions. I didn’t see one person playing without an oldfashioned wooden stick on my recent visit to the Box.
And that is what shinny hockey is all about—people of many different athletic abilities coming together to play, exercise and just have some fun.
I began chatting with a few of the other guys that were shooting the puck around, and they shared similar, warm feelings about the importance of the Box to the community. Dave Cuthbert says he learned to skate down at the Box. He’s been coming here since 1965. He loves that the rink is a place where he can come and play and get some exercise, and not have to play too seriously.
We chatted about the cost of hockey nowadays, and how hard it is for people to afford to play in leagues. We agreed that in a way, the Box strips away much of the flash and elitism often associated with hockey.
I also met Bill Park, a 30-year Beach resident and three-day-a-week Box player. His son and I went to Malvern Collegiate together.
And finally there was Shane Kinney, who had called out at me when I first came to the rink. Shane is a friend from the neighbourhood. Shane recognized how important places like the Box are to our coming together as a community.
“This is one of the last places for community members to meet,” Shane told me. “When you walk down the street very few people say hello anymore, but the minute you step onto the ice, that’s the first thing people do. Strangers become teammates and sometimes even friends.”
Places like this are too few and far between. Shinny rinks and hockey programs, especially for people who are beyond high school and university years are really difficult to find. For the younger kids and their parents, ice time and league play is extremely expensive, and equipment costs as much as a decent used car.
Hockey is becoming less accessible and maybe less a part of life for those who don’t have community ice rinks, or the money to purchase hockey equipment and play in a league. Hockey is such a huge part of the Canadian identity, yet I fear it is moving further away from something that all of us can enjoy and turning into a corporate monster that only the very wealthy can participate in.
As you move farther east from places like the Beach, Leslieville, and Riverdale, places to play shinny hockey are virtually nonexistent. People in neighbourhoods along the Bluffs, for the most part, have to travel to places like the Box to play a game of shinny.
There is no simple way to fill this void, but if hockey is to remain part of the Canadian and Toronto identity, we need to make hockey more accessible to all people, not just a privileged few.
It is clear that places like the Box serve a greater purpose than just a game of shinny hockey. These places are integral to the fabric of our city and our communities as meeting places. In these places, we learn to skate, learn to struggle, meet our neighbours, get some exercise, and just have some fun, all while sharing a moment with others. As we move forward as a city, we must always keep places like this in our minds. We must preserve what we have, and expand to include those who don’t have. We must share. Our communities will be stronger for it.
As I walked away from the rink, I remembered the feeling of how bitterly cold my hands got tying my skates. It was awful, but I want to feel that again. Next time, instead of a camera, I’m bringing my skates.